Ori Wertman, research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies and at the University of South Wales, spoke to a May 6 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about his interviews with key decision-makers responsible for Israel's successful and secretive military strike on Syria's nuclear reactor on September 6, 2007.
Wertman said decision-makers in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government focused on two considerations as they calculated the potential consequences of eradicating Syria's existential threat to Israel. First, Israel needed to make a quick strike before the reactor would be "hot," since attacking an "active" reactor would cause an "ecological and environmental disaster." Second, once Israel eliminated the reactor, it had to anticipate Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's reaction and the possibility of war. The "home front" faced the potential of Syrian missiles raining down in retaliation and Lebanon's Hezbollah joining Syria in a confronting the Jewish state.
Olmert was cognizant of the criticism after the 2006 Lebanon war waged under his leadership. If war with Syria was an "inevitable" result of a military operation, defeat was not an option. In retrospect, Wertman said the war in Lebanon restored deterrence against Hezbollah, but the Israeli people were of the mind that the war was "unsuccessful." After intelligence revealed the existence of the nuclear reactor, Olmert tasked the military leadership with the "guiding criteria" that any operation eliminating the reactor maintain "a low Israeli signature" so as to lessen the possibility of triggering a war with Syria.
In response to Olmert's directive, the military developed plans for the attack with three considerations: (1) It must occur prior to the nuclear reactor becoming operational; (2) it must occur before Syria was aware that Israel knew of the reactor's existence to prevent Assad from hardening the target; and (3), it needed to occur before the winter weather set in to give the Israeli Air Force (IAF) the most advantageous conditions. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) prepared operational plans for the reactor's destruction, but they also had to prepare the IAF in the event that there would be a "comprehensive confrontation against Syria and Hezbollah."
In April, Olmert made the decision to inform the Bush administration of the Syrian nuclear reactor. In his interview, Olmert revealed the reasons for his decision to Wertman: (1) the prime minister believed that if the U.S. would take the lead and destroy the reactor, the American action would be a more effective deterrent to Iran and its nuclear ambitions; and (2), Olmert thought that a U.S. strike would restrain Assad from launching a retaliatory attack from Syria.
After Olmert's Mossad director shared the intelligence with the U.S. administration, and the U.S. demurred, Olmert informed his cabinet ministers. By June, the ministers agreed on the need for an attack, given the incontrovertible evidence that the reactor was going online in three months. This conclusion was based on the discovery of "a water pipeline between the reactor and the Euphrates River" which was a "water pumping station ... to cool the reactor." With the exception of Ehud Barak, who had become defense minister mid-June, all the ministers agreed. Barak, who had served as "prime minister, defense minister, and IDF chief of staff," had a laudable history of participating in many "daring operations," and his word carried weight.
Barak agreed that the reactor was an "existential security threat" that had to be destroyed, but he differed with Olmert on the timeline of the attack. While Olmert wanted the strike to occur as soon as possible, Barak wanted additional "alternatives" developed within the three-month window to "act with discretion rather than recklessly." Olmert and Barak disagreed about the "operational" steps of the attack. Barak believed the two criteria — demolition of the reactor and conducting the aerial attack with "low signature action" — did not guarantee the outcome. Without sufficient plans guaranteeing certainty, Barak feared "the Jewish state [would] be demolished."
While Barak agreed with the plan to conduct an "aerial operation with a low signature," he endorsed an alternative put forward by Amos Yadlin, the director of Israel's Military Intelligence Directorate (Aman) and head of Sayeret Matkal, the "general staff reconnaissance regiment" that Barak had formerly commanded. Barak and Yadlin supported a ground operation to be conducted by the special forces of Sayeret Matkal. Olmert "preferred the low signature air operation" which would destroy the reactor without risking ground troops. Wertman said that Barak's scrutiny of alternatives was "normal" given the stakes, but the disagreement over the operational method "clouded the relationship between the two."
Yadlin played a significant role in the discovery of the reactor because of his insistence on investigating further, despite the Mossad's skepticism that Syria had the capability "to build a nuclear reactor." Prior to Yadlin assuming the leadership of Aman, Libyan dictator Mu'ammar Gaddhafi had revealed that his country possessed a nuclear reactor, which was a "shock" to Yadlin. The reconnaissance leader made it a priority to investigate whether any other country in the region had plans to build a nuclear reactor. It was during the summer of 2006 that "Aman discovered an isolated facility in the desert near to the river" which raised an alarm with the intelligence division since it was out of place.
Although the Mossad rebuffed Yadlin's concerns, he "pressed harder and harder." The Mossad relented, conducted a covert operation in Vienna, "and stole the computer of the head of the Atomic Nuclear Committee of Syria," who was attending a conference there. The laptop held a treasure trove of photos of the Syrian nuclear facility that the North Koreans had built in the desert, thereby confirming Yadlin's suspicions.
Wertman thinks that "Barak 100 percent did the right thing ... it's better not to ... delve too much into that confrontation." In the end, Israel's operation to destroy Syria's nuclear reactor was a success. Fast forwarding to present day, Wertman said that the nuclear threat posed by Iran is a different challenge than in 2007. While Syria had one reactor, much is unknown about the number of facilities that exist in Iran. Although he said destroying Iranian nuclear facilities is "very hard operationally," he believes it is possible: "Israel has its capabilities."
In Wertman's view, the Americans could do it "easily," but they "don't want to." He said the U.S. is a "true partner ... friend and family of the Jewish state," and an air force with the "best equipment," but the Biden government's "appeasement" policy is a "terrible mistake." Wertman said that Iran is a "barbarian regime," and he considers America the "superpower of the world." He counseled that instead of allowing itself to be distracted by the media debate of whether the regime is "a terror organization or not," America needs to show some spine.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.